December 17, 1903 in Kittyhawk, North Carolina Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic first flight, caught on film, a story every American school child knows, right out of the history book.
"But every student doesn't know the story of Rev. Burrell Cannon and the Ezekiel Airship," said Vernon Holmes as he stood beneath a full scale model of an aircraft that some believe flew over a year before the Wright brothers -- in Texas. In Pittsburg, Texas (a small town in the northeast corner of the state best known as the location for Bo Pilgrim's giant chicken processing plant) there has always been more to the history of flight than the Wright brothers. In Pittsburg, every school child knows the story of a Baptist preacher/mechanical genius who designed an airship using the Bible as a blueprint, one that flew, if only briefly. In April, 2003 Pittsburg's Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum opened a new wing dedicated to the fascinating story. The full scale replica was built in the mid-1980s by men using one of the few pieces of hard evidence - a photograph of the Ezekiel Airship that accompanied a Dallas newspaper article in 1901.
Rev. Burrell Cannon was a remarkable man who took his design from descriptions of the chariot that transported the prophet Ezekiel through the sky. "He really had an intuitive feel for the aerodynamics of this thing," said retired engineer Bob Turner, who's fascinated by the wheel within a wheel design of its thruster. "This is really a neat mechanical design here. I would like modern day engineers to take a crack at this and see if they could make it fly like (Rev. Cannon) thought it would."
There is recorded eyewitness evidence (though second-hand) that it did work, one Sunday morning in the fall of 1902, though it may have happened unexpectedly with a machinist at the wheel and another man holding a tether rope. "I think they were just revving up the engine," said Ted Newsome, another amateur historian from Pittsburg who has extensively studied the story. "I think it got away from them. They went up ten to twenty feet in the air, 160 feet or so out in the pasture and over a fence." Newsome said the man holding the tether rope was pulled up into the air and the man at the control apparently panicked and shut the machine off almost immediately after it became airborne. "I think it probably scared them to death."
Shortly after the brief flight, the story goes, Rev. Cannon put the Ezekiel Airship on a railroad car, intending to tour around the country with it and, maybe, end up at the World's Fair in St. Louis. Unfortunately, they only got as far east as Texarkana when a storm came up, blowing the aircraft off the train and destroying it. There is evidence that Rev. Cannon tried to re-finance the project and build anew. But a daughter later quoted him as saying "God never willed my airship should fly and I will have no more to do with it." Either way the Ezekiel Airship faded into history. Only in Northeast Texas has it lived on.
"I do not doubt that it got in the air," said Bob Turner.
"I think (the evidence) is pretty strong that they actually flew it," said Ted Newsome. "But it couldn't be considered a controlled flight."
"We believe the Wright brothers do deserve credit for the first flight," said Vernon Holmes. "We're not trying to take anything away from them. But we think Rev. Cannon has a place in history."
Judge for yourself. The Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum has a wealth of other wonderful exhibits including one of the best train museums you'll find anywhere and a working telegraph station. Pittsburg is about a 2 1/2 hour drive east of Dallas, south on Interstate 30 from Mt. Pleasant. For more information check it out on line at http://www.pittsburgtxmuseum.com.